Colin Hay at Birchmere

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Last night we saw Colin Hay for the first time at Birchmere. I’ve known a lot of his famous songs for nearly 30 years, but I never knew his name, nor even knew that he was the leader of Men At Work.

In fact, more often than not, when I mention to someone nowadays that we love Colin Hay, they say “Who?”. When I say that he was the leader of Men At Work, they say “Wow, I loved them!”.

He became a little more of a household name when Scrubs had him do a number of cameos, including playing a number of his songs. That’s where we discovered him. He joked last night that he had a best kept secret career for 30 years, before Zach Braff selected his song I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You for his movie Garden State. Zach Braff is the star of Scrubs, so after the success with Colin’s music in the movie, he introduced him to the show, very successfully as well.

Colin can do both solo shows (wonderfully) as well as full band shows. The show last night was a solo effort. It’s likely that this entire tour is a solo tour, but don’t take my word for it.

He came on stage at 8:30pm (I’ll cover the opening act later on). There were already three acoustic guitars sitting on the stage, but he had a fourth one already strapped on when he walked out to greet the crowd. I am using the word crowd literally. The show was sold out, and Birchmere can seat 650 people, so this is no small accomplishment, especially in these times, for a solo artist.

Colin Hay

Colin Hay

Interestingly, and more predictable, he mentioned up front that this was the sixth date on the current tour, and the first one that sold out. Of course, he complimented the audience on being so smart. 😉

We have been listening to a lot of Colin Hay recently, so we had no doubt we’d like the show. Even though we were 45th on line to get in, we ended up with nearly the best seats in the house. Right near the stage, all the tables seat 12 people each. So, even though there were 45 parties of people who were seated before us, there were still five empty seats at the table immediately in front of the microphone at center stage. Lois sat in the second seat in (giving the person to her left the best seat in the house, and Lois the third best seat) and I was to Lois’ right.

It’s important to us to sit up close, because Lois is effectively legally blind, and if we’re even mid-pack, everything on stage is basically a blur to her. But, it turned out to be a blessing from another perspective. Colin Hay is simply hysterical. He told very long stories in between most songs (and told one even before he started the show). It was pretty close to a full-blow standup comedy act (which is one of my favorite things in the world), but most of the stories actually related to the song he was about to sing, making them all-the-more special (but no less funny!).

By sitting up so close, we could fully appreciate every nuance in his facial expressions while he was telling the stories/jokes. He’s truly a master story teller / comedian (I’m convinced he could make a living as a standup comic), and that includes his ability to use body language, facial expressions, little noises, etc., to complement his schtick.

So, enough with the comedy, how about the music? Awesome. His guitar playing is excellent, and very consistent. While he picks beautifully on a few numbers, he’s mostly a fancy rhythm guitarist (by fancy, I mean that he throws in picks here and there, a few small leads, and mostly change-of-pace strumming to complement the beat of the song).

What stands out though is his voice, and the lyrics. He’s a great songwriter, both lyrics and melodies, but his voice is really exceptional. It’s very strong, yet very clear as well. Even when he hits very high notes (surprisingly), his voice remains steady and clear.

The sound system (and sound engineers) at Birchmere is one of the most consistently good ones of all the venues we frequent. Last night was no exception. That enhanced his skills, since there was no distraction due to distortion, feedback, incorrect leveling, etc.

He played a bunch of fan favorites (I could hear a number of people behind me singing along to most of the songs). He has a new CD coming out in August, and he played at least one new number that will be on that CD (at least that’s the only one that I recall him explicitly mentioning was from the new CD).

After he said goodnight, he never left the stage (thankfully), and played one more song as an encore. He encouraged the audience to sing the entire song along with him, and many did. He tested them a few times, stopping to sing, to see if people were singing, and more importantly, singing the correct words. It turned out to be pretty funny.

While I’ve seen many solo acts in the past 37 years, many of whom were brilliant, he has to rank near the top in overall showmanship due to his ability to mesmerize with words, as well as with song. He had the crowd eating out of his hands from the minute he stepped on the stage, until the minute he left, which was a total of 100 minutes.

Colin Hay Goodnight

Colin Hay Goodnight

If I had to guess, I’d say he sang for 60 minutes, and spoke/joked for 40. A very good blend. Lois commented to me that given his energy level when he sings, if he didn’t take a break to tell stories, he might not have been able to make it through a 90 minute set!

One of his songs that we love is called What Would Bob Do?, and he didn’t sing it last night (unfortunately). It has a very special meaning to us now, because we just recently wrote a custom version of that song (using only his chorus), and turned it into a birthday tribute song to our wonderful friend Bob! The we in that sentence was his family and friends (there were seven separate writers, all of whom wrote at least two verses each!).

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Colin Hay doing What Would Bob Do?

Here’s a link to our YouTube video tribute to our friend Bob! (it’s 10 minutes long, just warning you in advance!) 😉

Anyway, to repeat, he was awesome. We bought two of his CDs after the show, but we didn’t hang around to get them signed because the line was long, he wasn’t out yet, and we had a long drive back to Fredericksburg. Next time!

Colin had an opening act, Janet Robin, a solo act as well. She’s been opening for him a number of times on this tour (but not all). Rather than spend too much time on Janet, my summary is that she’s talented in ways that aren’t really suited to a solo act, in particular to an acoustic solo act.

Janet Robin

Janet Robin

She’s a considered a top guitarist by many. There’s little doubt that she has a lot of talent on the guitar, but it struck me that she’d have been more comfortable with an electric guitar than an acoustic one. Again, I could probably elaborate, but we were really there to see Colin, not Robin.

Her voice isn’t that great (at least not last night, but produced, her voice sounds better on her MySpace page, which I’m listening to now, as I type this). We weren’t that impressed with her songwriting either, so that was really three strikes out of three possibilities (though her guitar playing was still reasonably impressive!).

That said, I liked her (not the performance of the songs). Much like Colin Hay, she spent nearly as much time telling stories between songs as she did singing. She’s very funny (in a self-effacing way). In fact, I would have preferred that she played less, and talked more. In addition to enjoying her stories, it made her personally more likeable to me, and I was therefore more tolerant of her performance.

This was in stark contrast to when Chelsea Lee opened for Girlyman at Birchmere. That night, Chelsea’s voice was extraordinary, but her personality was non-existent to negative, making all of us anxiously await her departure from the stage.

Anyway, to be fair, there are definitely many Janet Robin loving fans, including some at the show (that likely came more for her than for Colin). One sat two seats away from us. So, as in all music, it’s a matter of personal taste. If yours are like ours, you won’t be seeking out a Janet Robin solo effort…

Not much back-story to tell here, so I’ll just say that my typical pulled pork sandwich was excellent, as it always is! 🙂